#Engagement Is More than a Hashtag

What Planners Should Know about Using Technology for Public Engagement

April 19, 2016

Applied Analytics & Data Visualization Strategist, NBBJ

I recently moderated a session on the topic of technology and community engagement at this year’s American Planning Association Conference in Phoenix. The panel included one representative each from four important groups involved with the topic: government, academia, planning, and the tech industry. We learned about the exciting emerging technologies being used for engagement by the private and public sectors.

Here are my top five take-aways from the discussion.


Screenshots from Civic Insight

Technology changes everything …
An ever-increasing array of apps and web platforms are available to facilitate all types of engagement. Some are designed very specifically for planners. Civic Insight is a web platform that allows cities to make data about vacant and abandoned homes easily available. SMap brings community meetings right to any desktop computer. Some apps are produced by governments to connect citizens directly to city agencies — in the case of StreetBump to report potholes using smartphones and GPS. And the recently released Data USA is an open-source platform promoted as “the most comprehensive website and visualization engine” ever created for U.S. government data.

Other technology, designed for wider use, can be adapted to a planning context. Submittable, a web platform for accepting submissions to companies such as those in the music or publishing industries, can be used by planners to solicit ideas from the community or to host ideas competitions. StoryCorps is a long-running campaign for collecting oral histories, and now they have an app that can be used to easily collect and organize stories from a community. Typeform is great for web and email surveys, and Poll Everywhere is great for SMS (texting) surveys.

… yet technology doesn’t change anything.
Apps and web platforms are new and exciting, but engagement itself isn’t new at all: planners have been working with communities long before the internet and social media even existed. Technology has given us fun new tools for communication, but the traditional goals of planning and public engagement remain the same: gathering good data, accurately assessing public opinion and stakeholder needs, building trust between citizens and planners, and increasing the legitimacy of decision-making.

Meet people where they are.
A 2015 Pew Research report estimated that 68% of Americans own a smartphone, and 2012 census data indicates that 74.8% of all households have home internet access. Though these percentages are high, it doesn’t stand to reason that socio-demographic groups are represented equally among those figures. Moreover, different generational cohorts interact with technology in different ways. Millennials are more highly represented in texting, Twitter and Instagram, while older generations prefer Facebook and email. Given this variety, technology should never be a replacement for in-person engagement. The best engagement campaigns meet the people where they are, and now some — but not all — people are at their smartphones. Engaging across a variety of modes is more important than ever.

Academia is your friend.
Planners shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to academia with ideas for apps and web platforms for engagement projects. A collaboration between the City of Atlanta and Georgia Tech produced Cycle Atlanta, a smartphone app that tracks user cycling routes to inform future planning decisions.

Professors and researchers need ideas for projects, students enjoy working on “real world” problems, and collaboration is good for everyone. Universities and research centers are the obvious choice, but don’t forget about high schools and community colleges too!

Stay current.
There is no master list of good technology tools for public engagement, so planners need to stay up-to-date the old-fashioned way: by reading articles and blogs, participating in conferences and keeping up with the work of their colleagues.

Technology offers great new tools for planners but is no guarantee of greater success or even time savings. New tools have the potential of reaching a wider audience, but they should always be supplemented by in-person engagement. Data collected still needs to be synthesized by a human. How a community member interacts with technology needs to be very carefully considered. Great public engagement is designed — for this reason, thoughtful planners are essential.

Special thanks to my panelists for their time and expertise: Alice Brown, AICP, Project Manager for Go Boston 2030, Boston Transportation Department; Dr. Camille Crittenden, Deputy Director of UC Berkeley CITRIS & Executive Director of the Social Apps Lab; Nicolas Rivard, Urban Designer and R+D Leader, Overland Partners, San Antonio; and Eddie Tejeda, CEO of Civic Insight & Director of Technology for OpenOakland.

Banner image courtesy of Go Boston 2030.

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