Interactive Technology Demonstrations at the NPSG Tech Fair

New technologies and tools are constantly being further developed and explored and have garnered attention as ways to engage more stakeholders in community planning and decision-making efforts. To demonstrate some of the great tools available out there, we hosted the second annual Tech Fair, along with EPA and the Open Planning Tools Group, at the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference last month.


These tools are about creatively engaging people with interactive planning experiences. We chose to demonstrate them accordingly, as opposed to having tool providers deliver a short presentation while conference-goers passively sit and watch. We wanted to foster more interactive demonstration and dialogue, giving attendees the opportunity to ask questions, meet and collaborate, experiment with technologies, and apply them directly to their own real-life scenarios. The Tech Fair became an open house to enable tool developers to demonstrate their real value in smart planning to conference attendees.

With thirteen different tool providers demonstrating their innovative tools, the Tech Fair was the place to find cutting edge tools for scenario planning, opportunity mapping, crowdsourced planning, and community engagement. PlaceMatters provided our custom-built touchtables for providers to live-demonstrate many of the tools. We were also able to share some of the tools PlaceMatters has been developing, including CrowdGauge, Brainstorm Anywhere, and WALKscope.

Tools being demonstrated included:

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WALKscope: Crowdsourced Pedestrian Data

It’s easy to look around most American cities and guess (correctly) where most of our transportation infrastructure funding is spent: on auto-oriented projects. As transportation infrastructure became more complex and within the purview of the public sector, planners and engineers developed the data and methodologies we needed to track what infrastructure exists and how it’s being used. This information guides policy decisions about where to invest resources.

However, we rarely have this kind of data for active transportation like biking and walking. This lack of data puts active transportation at a disadvantage when it’s time to allocate resources; after all, how do you argue for more sidewalks or prioritize where to put resources when you can’t demonstrate where the existing gaps and strengths are in the network? Following the “what gets measured gets done” logic, auto-oriented uses are better equipped to demonstrate need because they have data, perpetuating a cycle of auto-focused spending.


WALKscope desktop view

Over the last few months, PlaceMatters has been working with our friends at Walk Denver on a new tool for crowdsourcing data about the existing conditions and usage of Denver’s pedestrian infrastructure. The concept behind WALKscope is simple: drop a pin on a map, and then answer a few questions about pedestrian counts, street quality, or intersection quality.

At the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference last month, we were able to test it out in the field with 30 participants in a mobile workshop. Participants were given a quick tour of the tool, some maps showing them where to canvas, and then they were sent out into the Jefferson Park neighborhood of Denver. After about 30 minutes, we’d covered several blocks.

Jefferson Park Data

30 minutes of WALKscope with 6 groups

When participants returned, we pulled up the map and groups were able to report out on the data they’d just collected, including the pictures they took. Cool.


Using WALKscope to report what we found during the data collection.

We then got down to my favorite part, a usability review of the tool. Overall, the comments were really positive. Some of the pluses:

  • responsive design: because it’s designed for use with mobile devices, the interface for collecting data was really easy to use in the field.
  • pictures: incorporating pictures is really helpful for adding detail to what is otherwise a pretty basic survey of the area
  • conversation starter: several folks mentioned that neighborhood residents asked them what they were up to, and a couple of those residents even asked how they could get involved and pitch in.

and the most common requests/issues:

  • more categories: it’s always tricky balancing the desire for precision with the need to generalize categories to make the data manageable. We got some helpful feedback on refining our current ways of categorizing sidewalks and intersections.
  • ped counter interface: one of the best ideas we heard was to add a clicker feature to the ped counter option so people could just tick off a new pedestrian each time they saw one rather than remembering the total and updating it at the end. I love this idea; definitely something we’d like to implement.
  • user access: currently you can sign in via twitter or facebook, but people understandably would love to be able to have persistent sign-in so they could log a bunch of data points and have a user account keep up with it all for them.

So what’s next for WALKscope? If you’re in Denver, it’s up and ready for you to use it! We’ll be doing some data visualizations and other reporting from the work we’re doing with Walk Denver, and we’re talking with other organizations who are interested in using it. If you’d like more info on the tool, let us know!

PS: A huge amount of credit is due to the folks at OpenPlans for developing Shareabouts, the platform on which WALKscope is built.


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Engagement Tech for All

“Civic Technologies” are gaining increasing interest as a way to engage hard-to-reach populations in community planning and decision-making. Low income people, as well as people of color, immigrants, people with limited English proficiency, and youth are often un- or underrepresented in these processes.  Reasons for this lack of engagement, according to earlier research by the non-profit OpenPlans, include limited city budgets and staff capacity, absence of awareness of opportunities to engage, limited language skills and reading comprehension, and previous negative experiences resulting in mistrust or hostility towards government.  While not a panacea, we believe that civic technologies enhance the toolkit available to planners and decision-makers who want to broaden public engagement. 

However, little has been written to date about how civic technologists focused on reaching underrepresented communities can most effectively approach their work.  In response to this issue, PlaceMatters conducted best practices research, with support from the Ford Foundation.  We are pleased to release “Engagement Tech for All: Best Practices in the Use of Technology in Engagement Underrepresented Communities in Planning” today.

Mobile: An emerging frontier in civic engagement

Widespread adoption of mobile technologies is enabling some households to leapfrog the “digital divide.”  The Pew Research Center reports that as of May 2013, 91% of American adults had mobile phones, including 86% of adults with lower incomes.  Pew further reports that African-Americans and Latinos use social media slightly more than whites (non-Hispanics), and are more likely than whites to want the government to post more information on social media.

Case studies highlighted in the report illustrate how planners can leverage this widespread use of mobile phones and social media to engage a broad audience.  Mi Parque, for example, is a bi-lingual mobile smartphone application that gathers input about a 23-acre park being developed over a former Superfund site in Little Village in Chicago. The application was created by an all-women team including Motorola and several students and faculty affiliated with the Open Youth Networks from Columbia University, mentored by engineers from several tech companies. The report also describes #VizLou, a Twitter-based social media tool and website, developed by Living Cities in partnership with OpenPlans, which invites youth (“Visionaries”) in Louisville, KY, to engage around civic issues.

Emerging Best Practices

General best practices that emerge from the report include the following:

  1. Members of the target population should provide input on tool development, to ensure the tool will be accessible to and used by the community.
  2. For underrepresented communities in particular, new tools or add-ons should be built based upon tools and technology these communities are already using.
  3. Visual communication, including graphics, short videos, and images are often a more effective means of communicating and engaging underrepresented groups that have a variety of language and educational backgrounds.
  4. Tools that track user demographics can help practitioners evaluate the effectiveness of the tool in reaching target populations, and demonstrate the value of the tools to sometimes-skeptical public decision-makers
  5. Regardless of the outreach method used, the most critical determinant of success (real and perceived) is whether the input gathered is reflected in decisions, actions, and outcomes.  Quick implementation of on-the-ground changes, even small ones, can demonstrate the responsiveness of public agencies to community input and needs.
  6. The most effective examples of technology-based tool use take advantage of social networks, community groups, and trusted advocates that already exist in the real world, and use these tools to support, rather than replace, face-to-face interaction.

Our report concludes by noting that, while communities are using technology to effectively engage typically underrepresented groups, rigorous evaluation of these efforts has been limited.  In some cases, communities need to collect additional data to more accurately determine who is participating, and to meaningfully compare the costs and benefits associated with different tools or outreach methods.  For example, better information on demographics and cost per participant associated with hosting public meetings versus engaging residents through online or mobile technologies can help communities use limited resources more efficiently, and to target more expensive outreach methods to specific groups that may be difficult to engage otherwise.

Click the links below to download the main report and related appendices:

Engagement Tech for All: Main Report

Engagement Tech for All: Appendix A

Engagement Tech for All: Appendix B


This post also appeared on the Living Cities blog, The Catalyst.

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Public Coffee, Facilitating Meaningful Conversation

The annual New Partners for Smart Growth Conference draws a national audience of professionals in a variety of fields, including government, planning, transportation, public health, architecture, public works, parks and recreation, developers, bankers, and education. When you bring that many smart, passionate people together, how do you really tap into that knowledge and make sure folks walk away inspired?

Introduce Public Coffee, an all volunteer-run local Denver organization and self-proclaimed adaptable “toolbox to be used and shared by everyone to build our community the way we wish to see it,” with a mission to activate public spaces and build connections. Public Coffee’s role is to be facilitators of meaningful conversations. In the context of the New Partners for Smart Growth conference, they sought to give attendees the chance to meet and share their thoughts with others.  During two coffee breaks at the conference Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, Public Coffee repurposed the coffee and tea stations into centers for connection. Enthusiastic volunteers handed out “Tandem Cups”– two small cups tied together with string and a pre-printed prompt between — to pairs of conference-goers, encouraging them to simply enjoy a cup of coffee together and share their thoughts on a wide range of topics such as sustainability, smart growth, equity and gentrification issues, innovative technology, or just thoughts and comments about the conference in general.


The planning process is just as important as the event for the Public Coffee team. They collaborated with PlaceMatters, Local Government Commission (conference organizers), and the hotel staff to define the goals, understand the audience, and identify critical topics for discussion. All prompt questions, which were given with each set of tandem cups, were collaboratively developed. Some examples include:

- How do you define smart growth? Is the original definition from the 20th century still relevant, or does it need to be updated for the 21st century?
- How can smart growth planners balance efficiency and collaboration?
- What do you believe is the greatest innovation currently developing in your community?
- How do you feel about the phrase “being green”? In what ways can this phrase be helpful or limiting for discussions of sustainable, environmentally-responsible growth?
- What is a skill or passion that you have that you would like to apply more directly to what you do professionally?
- Is the ‘traditional’ downtown a thing of the past?  Is that OK?

What is Public Coffee up to when not tying people together at conferences? The group operates a mobile coffee shop in Denver, converted out of a trailer. They are invited to pop-up at neighborhoods, businesses, and community events around town serving coffee for the specific reason of starting meaningful conversations. Public Coffee is adaptable in form, location, and programming so that anyone anywhere can use it to empower the community. Being on wheels has allowed Public Coffee to help activate conversations all across the city. To date, they have facilitated connections at art museums, libraries, galleries, neighborhoods, local businesses, a middle school, a 5K event, and a print shop.

Public Coffee is supported by the generosity of the community. They operate on a Pay-What-You-Can model so that they may be accessible for all. The build-out of their trailer and their start-up costs were supported by a Kickstarter campaign in March 2013. Having a year under their belts, the team is currently writing a reflection book so that everyone may learn from their experience, models, mistakes, and process.

For more about Public Coffee, visit their website here. For more information about the New Partners conference and PlaceMatters’ involvement, please visit here.

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PlaceMatters Pocket Park at NPSG

PlaceMatters Pocket Park

With support from the Sustainable Communities Learning Network and several generous sponsors, PlaceMatters hosted an indoor parklet (among several other cool things) at the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference here in Denver just a couple weeks ago.

Traditionally, a parklet is a:

“small urban park, often created by replacing a parking spot with sod, planters, trees, benches, café tables and chairs–even artwork or bicycle parking. They are designed to provide urban green space and to bring awareness to the quantity of public community space that is devoted to parking rather than creating vibrant community spaces” (American Society of Landscape Architects,

Parklets are typically installed in a standard 10′ x 20′ parking space in urban areas where current green space is lacking or where the existing sidewalk width is not large enough to accommodate vibrant street life activities and passive recreation. Parklets provide a community space for passersby to sit, relax, interact with other city-dwellers, and enjoy the city atmosphere around them.  The first parklet was installed in San Franscisco in 2011 as part of a movement to bring back a more holistic view of city spaces and streets, and parklets have since garnered support from planners, residents, and even business owners who enjoy the unique, vibrant public space which in turn attracts customers and fosters community interaction. Many cities have embraced the concept and install parklets at least seasonally, including San Francisco, New York City, Philadelphia, and Chicago.

For demonstration purposes of the conference, the parklets were placed inside the conference foyer area as opposed to outside. We then took advantage of a spacious corner to upgrade to a Pocket Park that was larger than the standard 10’ x 20’ parklet space. Just as a real urban park, the Pocket Park became a place for folks to have meetings, connect with other conference-goers, or even just to enjoy a quiet lunch or respite amidst pleasant scenery. In addition, the Pocket Park also hosted “The Doctor is In” 20-minute office hours in partnership with Kevin Nelson from EPA’s Office of Sustainable Communities, and a touchtable demonstration of our new tool WALKscope. Of course, the Pocket Park would not have been possible if it were not for the generous help and contributions from several local businesses: Streetscapes and Tournesol Siteworks provided the comfortable yet stylish furniture and bright eye-catching planters, while Denver Botanic Gardens provided live trees and plants to make the indoor park even more realistic, and Ally Sales with Alliance Lighting really helped us set the mood with energy-efficient LED lighting through the entry walkway.

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PlaceMatters at New Partners for Smart Growth Conference

We hope that you got a chance to visit us at the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference here in Denver the week of February 14th, but in case you didn’t, here’s a recap of some of the cool things we helped put on. You’ll also be hearing more from us soon regarding several of these topics in more detailed blog posts, so be sure subscribe to our blog or follow us on Twitter to stay up to date on all things PlaceMatters!

 PlaceMatters Pocket Park Tech Fair Public Coffee WALKshop with WALKscope

PlaceMatters hosted a Pocket Park parklet throughout the duration of the conference, which served as a place to relax and meet with other conference-goers. Stay tuned to our blog for more information and pictures on our Pocket Park.

Along with EPA and the Open Planning Tools Group, we also created an open house to bring together tool developers and users to demonstrate their value in smart planning to conference attendees. Stay tuned to our blog for more information and pictures on the Tech Fair.

The Open Planning Tools Group announced the winners of announced the winners of the Open Planning Tools Group Innovation Awards: Forest Planner from EcoTrust and Massachusetts Priority Mapping Protocol from MAPC. You can read more about the winners in this blog post on

We were incredibly excited to be able to get our local friends Public Coffee involved in the conference to help facilitate face-to-face interaction between conference attendees. During two coffee breaks at the conference Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, enthusiastic volunteers handed out “Tandem Cups”–two small cups tied together with string and a pre-printed prompt between–to pairs of conference-goers, encouraging them to simply enjoy a cup of coffee together and share their thoughts on a wide range of topics such as sustainability, smart growth, equity and gentrification issues, innovative technology, or just thoughts and comments about the conference in general.

Together with our friends at WalkDenver, we led an “Urban Walkshop” on Sunday morning exploring the Jefferson Park neighborhood in Denver with WALKscope, a newly developed pedestrian data collection tool by PlaceMatters and WalkDenver. Stay tuned to our blog to hear more about the development and implementation of the WALKscope tool.

We moderated two panel discussions at the conference: “Building Leadership for Water-Wise Growth in the West” and “Lessons from the Vacant School House: Turning Empty Buildings into Assets.” More information and outcomes of the great discussions which took place during these sessions will be blogged about soon, so keep an eye out!

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Call for Entries: 2014 Open Planning Tools Innovation Awards

The Open Planning Tools Group is initiating an annual innovation awards program to facilitate the advancement and utilization of innovative open access planning tools.  Initial awards will be made both for innovative tool development and for an exemplary implementation effort. Self-nominations are welcome. Deadline: Feb 3, 2014

2014 Awards

Innovative Open Source Planning Tool Award: An annual award to the best new contribution(s) to open source planning tools.

Exemplary Implementation of Open Source Planning Tool Award: An annual award to a planning endeavor that utilized planning tools in an innovative manner to create effective public engagement or improved analysis supporting the resolution of a significant challenge.  Projects must have utilized open source software.  The applicant could be a lead public agency or consultant involved in the activity.

In addition, each award comes with a $500 cash prize.


Eligibility Criteria

Innovative Tool Award

  • Topic Areas:
    • Applications to advance scenario planning
    • Applications that facilitate community engagement and/or public education
    • Efforts to facilitate use of current scenario planning tools for exploratory scenario planning efforts
    • New enhancements that can be used with scenario planning tools – such as linking land use and public health issues
    • Applications that assist with assembling data for use with planning tools
  • Requirements
    • The “Key Elements” of the tool being submitted for the award should be licensed under a recognized OS license and the code publicly accessible at the time of judging to be eligible
    • At least some portion of the nominated effort must have occurred within the last year

Exemplary Implementation Award

  • Topic Areas – Exemplary planning efforts in any of the following areas
  • Requirements
    • Scenario Planning
    • Community Engagement
    • Comprehensive / General Plans
    • The tool being used as the “key” element or enabling technology in the nominated planning and implementation effort would ideally be licensed under a recognized OS license and the code released for public access at the time of judging.  Non-open source tools that embody the OPTG principles will also be considered.
    • Entries will be judged both on the planning process used and the final product or outcomes
    • At least some portion of the nominated effort must have occurred within the last year


Scoring Categories

Innovative Planning Tool

How innovative is the tool? 20%
How readily can other people or projects use the tool? 20%
User-Friendliness (including documentation) 20%
Effectiveness & Utility 20%
Potential to Change the World (for the better) 20%


Exemplary Implementation Award

Effort produces or uses open data 20%
Improves analysis as it relates to planning 20%
Public engagement / How well was the tool explained, given its complexity 20%
How exemplary/innovative is the process? 20%
Relevance of issue 20%


Submission Materials
The combined nominating materials specified below must total no more than 4 pages in length (12 pt type):

  • Project Summary:  this should be suitable to be used as a public information piece and as a description of the project in a best practices database
  • Advancing OPTG Principles:  identify how the nominated project advances the 12 guiding principles of the OPT Group (attached).  This is not expected to be an item by item list but a synthesis statement
  • Documentation of Innovation:  Identify the uses of the application / tool / or planning process and the transferability of the lessons learned or the tool for other efforts
  • Contact Information:  A listing of responsible individuals and their name, organization, phone number and email address.
  • The Nominated Product:  Submit a copy of the actual product, or a link to see or use the product or a website created to support and document the planning process.
  • Additionally, the applicant may optionally submit up to 2 letters of support. These letters do not count as part of the application length.


Submission Details

  • Final deadline is 5pm on Feb 3, 2014.  All materials must be received by the deadline
  • Submit materials electronically to:
  • Awards will be announced during the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference, Feb 14 – 16, 2014 in Denver, Colorado.


2013 – 2014 Awards Committee

Ted Cochin, U.S. EPA

Gordon Garry, Sacramento Area Council of Governments

Ruth Miller, Independent Contractor

Nathaniel Roth, University of California, Davis

Garlynn Woodsong, Calthorpe Associates


Download the Full Announcement, including the OPTG Mission and Guiding Principles.


Cross-posted on

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Webinar: Transitioning to Long-Term Community Engagement

Join PlaceMatters and PolicyLink for a webinar on Transitioning to Long-Term Community Engagement.

Date: February 19, 2014

Time: 12:00 – 1:30 pm MDT


Comprehensive planning that integrates the needs and expertise of a broad range of sectors, communities and approaches is the foundation of HUD’s Sustainable Communities Initiative.  With the grant program’s emphasis on increasing the engagement of historically marginalized communities in the planning process, local governments and regions have been forging new relationships, new problem-solving methods, and new, inclusive decision-making tables.

The challenge now is how to transition this work into long-term strategies and institutionalized practices for continued community engagement beyond the grant-funding period.  PlaceMatters and PolicyLink have therefore teamed up to host a webinar on strategies and resources for institutionalizing inclusive, meaningful engagement through behavioral, organizational, structural or other changes.

The webinar will feature speakers from two different communities that are on the forefront of implementing long-term strategies for community engagement – the Kansas City Region and Piedmont Triad.  Join this webinar to learn about the approaches these regions are exploring and using to continue and institutionalize the public/community partnerships developed during the SCI planning phase.


  • Jill Locantore, Sustainable Solutions Group, PlaceMatters (moderator)
  • Sarita Turner, Senior Associate, PolicyLink
  • Ron Achelpohl, Assistant Director of Transportation, Mid-America Regional Council
  • Gloria Ortiz-Fisher, Executive Director, Westside Housing Organization
  • Mark E. Kirstner, AICP, Director of Planning, Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation
  • David Allen, Communications and Youth Outreach, Beloved Community Center, Greensboro, NC

Please contact Jill Locantore at if you have any questions.

This webinar session is sponsored by the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities at U.S. HUD. The primary audience is Sustainable Communities Partnership grantees and their consortium partners, but anyone who is interested may participate.



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Tech Fair at New Partners for Smart Growth Conference

An Interactive Demonstration of Tools for Smart Planning

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 14, 2014 — 9:30 AM – 3:30 PM

Take a stroll through the Technology Fair and try out cutting edge tools for scenario planning and public engagement. You can also talk to leading tool developers and users about how to put these tools to work for you. Tools on exhibit will include:

  • Mapping and alternative analysis tools;
  • Tools for understanding and communicating complexity;
  • Online tools and mobile apps to engage typically underrepresented stakeholders.

PlaceMatters, along with EPA and the Open Source Planning Tools Collaborative, created this open house to bring together leading tool developers and users to demonstrate their value in smart planning to New Partners for Smart Growth attendees.


  • OpenPlans featuring Plan In A Box / Shareabouts
  • Calthorpe Associates featuring UrbanFootprint
  • LocalData featuring LocalData
  • Plan-it Geo featuring Urban Forest Cloud Web Apps
  • PlaceWays featuring CommunityViz
  • MetroQuest featuring MetroQuest
  • ESRI featuring Community Analyst Online
  • Fregonese Associates, Inc. featuring Envision Tomorrow
  • Urban Interactive Studio featuring BrightPages
  • U.S. HUD featuring the Location Affordability Portal
  • U.S. EPA featuring the Smart Location Database
  • Denver Regional COG featuring the Denver Regional Equity Atlas
  • featuring GreaterPlaces

PlaceMatters Touchtable

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