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CrowdGauge: aligning citizen values with planning strategies by PlaceMatters

Communicating the web of tradeoffs for different decisions facing a community is one of the toughest parts of city planning. Too often, such conversations quickly overflow with planning concepts, tedious jargon and technical maps, making it difficult for non-professionals to take part in the conversation. At the other extreme, planning issues are simplified for civic engagement such that the feedback received lacks the specificity needed to provide useful direction for planners and policy-makers.

CrowdGauge is a web-based game that finds a middle path between these extremes. It first asks users to rate a set of priorities on a scale of 0-5 using a finite number of stars. As users choose priorities, dynamic infographic icons representing those priorities resize to reflect the rating.

On the next page, the user is asked to choose among a set of actions and policy decisions. As choices are made, those same infographic icons change color to show how specific policy decisions support or hinder the previously rated priorities.

The third part of the sequence gives users a limited number of coins, asking them to put that money towards the actions they support most. Once again, color is used to show how those budget decisions affect the user’s previously chosen priorities.

Sasaki Associates first developed the platform in partnership with the Des Moines Area MPO (DMAMPO) as part of The Tomorrow Plan, a regional plan for sustainable development in the Central Iowa region. Building on the success of the The Tomorrow Plan, PlaceMatters worked with DMAMPO and Sasaki to pool expertise and resources to transition the tool into an open source platform called CrowdGauge, with new features and a revamped back end for easier use and deployment.

PlaceMatters has now deployed CrowdGauge in a number of communities, including New River Valley, VA and Oklahoma City, OK. One insight gained from these early projects has been the value of the tool not just for communicating complex information to a non-technical audience, but for professional planners as well. In New River Valley, the process of specifying the connections between priorities (I want my taxes to be low) and actions (Build more schools) helped staff clarify and refine their own understanding of the issues.

CrowdGauge yields rich data about what residents want and which trade offs they’re comfortable with, but it also collects basic demographic and geographic information about each set of responses. This has allowed PlaceMatters to work with communities to do further analysis of the underlying demographic and geographic patterns behind the full set of responses. For instance, how do different counties respond to the idea of new schools? Are there patterns of wealth or age associated with support for keeping taxes low? This nuanced understanding gives planners and policy-makers additional insights to consider as part of the planning process.

As part of PlaceMatters’ commitment to open source tools, CrowdGauge is entirely open source and licensed under the permissive MIT license. For more details, see the GitHub repository.