Thank you for coming back for Part 2 on Crowdsourcing and public planning. If you haven’t read Part 1, do so now so you know where I’m coming from. In this post I am going to show some techniques that have worked for the handful of agencies that have tried this new method and give an few examples for you to browse.
To say that crowdsoucing a public document or plan is new would be an understatement. This cutting edge technology has only been around for a few years. The internet has made crowdsourcing available and easy to use. Public opinion and expertise is invaluable to the planning process and has been tapped into in the past via surveys, questionnaires, and every planner’s favorite… charettes. But the public doesn’t often feel as much a part of the process as they do a sounding board. What crowdsourcing brings to the table is the chance for the public to be much more involved than even a charette.
The process is almost so simple that it’s difficult. What is difficult is letting go of control of a project for a period of time and letting it organically evolve via the public’s input and learning how to decipher all the information that can be gathered. There are a a few basic principals which should be followed: I found these 12 examples from CoolTown Studios in Washington DC, one of the only private firms I have located that has a crowdsourcing methodology.
However, I believe the CoolTown model is almost too complex for what most towns need. I believe the process should begin with a framework plan (first draft) that planners and/or consultants have created. In this framework plan the expertise from the professionals should be included, government wish lists, and all the facts presented (population expectations, vacancy rates, and developable lands). Then the public should be allowed to run with the plan both individually and as a group. All ideas from the small to the lofty should be considered by the governing bodies. As mentioned in my prior post, citizens know their specific street and neighborhood better than any planner or consultant for a town. They may not have a future vision of the city as a whole, but they know where the problems lie in their neighborhoods.
Public participation is the most important factor to making crowdsoucing work and must be promoted early and often. I believe crowdsourcing can be done without computers and technology, but the word must get out to get good participation. Methods I have found useful are identifying the key community leaders early in the process and getting them involved and up to date. These leaders can be HOA members, preachers, business leaders, and party leaders. Also, getting the local papers interested in a positive way is a great tool. The municipal website should promote the planning process in a clear manner with dates of meeting and locations easily identifiable. If the community is small enough I would use postcards announcing the meetings well in advance. Depending on the community, finding bi-lingual members of that community may be necessary to get turnout and gather ideas. Finally shameless self promotion by the government and planning department is the best way to show enthusiasm and interest. If the government leaders are serious and interested in planning the citizens should be too.
Getting input from outspoken and even timid individuals is easy compared to how all this data and input is deciphered. Putting a second draft together while considering all the information that has been gathered is a daunting task, but the most important. As mentioned earlier, all ideas should be considered and the community meeting should be able to help the planning department rank the importance of each idea. This is where the bulk of staff and consulting time needs to be invested. All edits to a plan should be marked up so the citizens can see what has been included and omitted from the original plan.
After the planning department has had time to compile a second draft another round of public meetings should be scheduled to gather more input and see if the recommendations set forth by all different communities are truly what the municipality wants. This is also a junction which requires some special attention by the plan creators. As CoolTown Studios mentions in their final step, a group must be critical of their own ideas to avoid groupthink or “thought exhibited by group members who try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas”. In order to avoid complacency the comprehensive plan process needs to be critical and the citizens need to be critical of all ideas, not just the planning department’s or other communities’, but their own as well.
Some examples of web-based crowdsourcing:
- At the National Level Obama’s Urban Policy which was set up prior to his arriving in office to gather public opinions and rate them on importance.
- The City of Austin has done a similar webpage to gather public opinion and rank the ideas.
- Next Stop Design has an online contest to submit ideas for transit stops around the country and allow visitors to vote and comment on all designs. Open source design has its own challenges and theories, I will not be discussing that here.
- The Best example of internet urban planning and crowdsourcing has to be Pittsburgh’s Regional Integrated Transportation Plan. With it’s own Wiki explaining the process and all parts of the plan they are very aggressively trying to get public input. Each page of the Wiki has a discussion tab for the public to participate in.
Ideas for on the ground planning to include those groups that cannot be reached by the internet. I must admit, it was much easier finding examples of web based urban planning crowdsourcing vs. real world examples, here are a few:
- The City of New Orleans has a year long approach to their 20 year master plan, however concerns over a top-down approach are not being addressed. My own opinions aside on the rebuilding of a city in a clear hazard area, NOLA has done a good job getting the public voice heard, now can they implement it?
- Grays Harbor County, WA has put community involvement at the top of the priority list for their 2020 Vision Plan, as well as improving social and community networks.
- Moscow, ID had an aggressive community outreach schedule for 7 local meetings to gather information and the final draft is open for comment, modification, and input online.
Thank you for reading the series on crowdsourcing, as more information becomes available this is definitely a topic I want to elaborate on and bring into my next job, I really believe it is the future of community visioning and comprehensive planning. I would love to hear from you if you have some examples or other takes on crowdsourcing in the public realm, just leave a comment and I’ll get back to you.