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.
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.
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.