This post, by guest blogger Corey Connors, is the ninth in a month-long series on the impressive 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.
“Lie” #1: Not everyone has a smartphone, so the benefit of using them is very limited.
While no one would be wise to argue with the fact that not everyone has a smartphone, there are several ways that smartphone apps create significant benefits as supplements to public meetings. One of those reasons is “reach.” While not everyone has smartphones, the number of those who do is certainly greater than the number of people who regularly attend public meetings – so based on scale alone, the potential ability to engage citizens goes up. Another benefit is allowing citizens to provide feedback in real-time, during their commutes and recreation time (on topics that they may forget details of by the time the public meeting comes around). The best apps also allow those who may prefer using internet access and a web browser to provide feedback in a similar manner, which can also be useful during public meetings in a kiosk strategy.
“Lie” #2: Smartphone apps will only make work for me, as it’s more data that I have to mine.
The best apps allow citizens to provide geo-coded photos, video, and/or audio files about issues, and allow them to categorize that issue from a list that you define – this allows a simple export from the smartphone app database to MSExcel for general use and to shapefiles (.shp) for GIS analysis. The best apps make it easy for citizens to provide their feedback in real-time, and they should make it easy for professionals to take that data and bring it to bear in planning projects. The contrast is the more common strategy of plotter-printing a large map that is placed on the floor for citizens to walk over, and then having them provide comments via Post-It notes adhered to the map – imagine the time it will then take to simply compile, categorize, and confirm specific locations of that data.
A Truth: Smartphone apps are not fields of dreams – they require promotion and communication to achieve high adoption.
You can rest assured that the most tech-forward of your audience will not need reminders about the ease of downloading an app and then immediately contributing to a planning project, but in 2012 they will likely still represent a minority of the audience that you hope to engage. Reaching and involving the larger group will require active communication by whatever strategies will be most effective for your specific audience – gameification (to add interest to participation), project-specific websites, email blasts, partnerships with local groups (casual and professional), transit advertising, TV spots, social media, press events, and others can all be appropriate strategies.
Case study: Reno Sparks Bicycle & Pedestrian Plan.
The Reno Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) set out to create this region’s first-ever comprehensive bicycle and pedestrian plan – public engagement was essential. There was also desire to be in as many “places” as possible to help citizens engage in the project. A first-of-its-kind smartphone app was created to allow for this enhanced engagement. Citizens could download this app for free (on iPhone, Android, and Blackberry), and use it to submit photo- and typed-comment-based feedback about the bicycle and pedestrian environments in the region. Those submissions were then automatically illustrated on an interactive map at the project-specific website – this allowed anyone to browse the detail of the feedback that their neighbors were providing, simply by going to the website. Social media strategies were put in place and resulted in a significantly-larger number of engaged citizens (than had been common in similar efforts), and the ability for project messages to be shared virally. To streamline management, these social channels were integrated so that a message/update in one would automatically propagate to the other, and to the custom website for all citizens to see. From a partnership standpoint, the Reno Wine Walk group was identified as a casual group to provide good participation and reach, as it hosts weekly walking events that involve popular wine merchants in the downtown area and neighboring streets.
This post was contributed by Corey Connors of Fehr & Peers, a California-based transportation consulting firm.