Be a Citizen Planner, Online

Open GovernmentThe world has gone digital, in ways large and small. As recently as five years ago, many of the online products we now take for granted, like Twitter and YouTube, had only a miniscule following, while others didn’t even exist. Many of us are now communicating, making transactions, and getting information in new ways that weren’t possible or practical until very recently. But those changes have largely been a feature of the private sector. The public sector continues to lag with Internet initiatives; many government tasks seem as slow, manual, and mundane as ever. A big New York City success is Mayor Bloomberg’s automated 311 system; but it might as well be the exception that proves the rule.

When someone has a complaint, suggestion, or idea regarding transportation or land use planning, things seem to be at their worst. Agencies continue to rely almost exclusively on tired and ineffective public comment sessions. They often do the minimum, which means posting the meeting notice in obscure newspapers and scheduling for times inconvenient to most people. Only NYC’s Department of Transportation has bucked the trend with the numerous community board meetings and other outreach regarding everything from the bike share program to street plazas to bus lanes. But again, it may as well be the exception to prove the rule.

Fortunately, the private and non-profit sector, as well as some government initiatives, has been steadily picking up the slack by developing and promoting new web applications for online planning participation (this web site being an example of the trend, of course). People who have previously thought they are powerless to make their voices heard can, with a quick Google search, discover that they have new ways to connect with neighbors and participate in public outreach on a wide variety of planning topics. Projects in this area generally fall under three headings:

1. Government “open data” initiatives and promotions for use of these data (such as through coding competitions).

Ever since President Obama’s Open Data Presidential Directive, governments at all levels have made new attempts to increase public transparency and accountability by releasing government data sets that were previously difficult to access or entirely unavailable. Web sites such as data.gov began accumulating them; then the question appeared of how to make that data useful – at a minimum cost to the taxpayer – while also tackling the The Good, The Bad, and The Future of having these data sets online. Today, these data sets are routinely sifted through, analyzed, and digitally presented by a variety of private developers, non-profits, and government entities. To encourage innovative uses, agencies and groups like Code for America organize competitions that encourage individuals and small businesses to develop new apps that use the new data, often for substantial prize money (and everlasting fame).

2. Web and mobile apps (including those created in the open data competitions) that aid people in navigating bureaucracies, comment on and discuss public projects, or present public information in new ways.

Web sites and apps dealing with public engagement, planning, and information sharing get adopted by residents and local governments. Early, more traditional tools like Regulation Room have been merely enhanced methods by which to submit public comments for existing feedback processes, such as federal agency rulemaking. Newer tools depend on social networks to function and provide a more creative aspect to citizen engagement. Sites like StreetMix allow people to play urban planner and store or share their favorite projects.

3. Initiatives that aim to move urban planning into the online realm by attempting to do the “heavy lifting” of encouraging grassroots-led campaigns and establishing the related organizational and legal framework required for many real world planning projects.

A comprehensive online “translation” of the planning process – especially one that seriously involves the public in a leading capacity – is still in its infancy, but the potential for apps is there. Assisted by new tools that help manage complex, hierarchical data online, such as schema.org, more and more can be done online, from having project-specific community forums to providing a timeline for a project’s development. Both features are offered, for example, on the coUrbanize platform. And what about having the public actually propose projects? A Russian web site mycity.io features a prototype for this model, with more sure to follow.

With so many new opportunities to participate in the urban planning process, it is best for both parties – governments and people – to work together on new solutions to difficult problems in transportation, construction, natural resources, and other aspects of planning. As these tools become more ubiquitous and more powerful, those stuck in old ways may get left behind.

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