High Tech Gaining Ground as a Community Engagement & Planning Tool

The impact of the pandemic resulted in profound disruptions and challenges across various facets of society, leading to what can be described as a “locked up” effect. Restrictions, closures and engagement limitations imposed to curb the spread of COVID had wide-reaching consequences.

Nonetheless, the pandemic had its benefits, one of which includes the increased use of high-tech methods to boost community engagement in planning efforts.

“I hate to say it, but it’s pretty much the case that COVID gave the use of digital tools quite a big boost,” said Sarah Horton, director of North American operations for CitizenLab, a civic tech company that creates community engagement platforms and tools that local governments can use to collect and use residents’ input.

Woman showing a graphic on a laptop screen

Courtesy of CitizenLab

CitizenLab was founded in 2015 by several graduate students in Belgium who saw a need for high-tech methods. They also believed that the way that governments were asking for public participation was outdated and archaic for the next generation of residents. And the current one as well, what with 90-plus percent of all households in the United States and Canada now online, according to census data from both countries.

Since its start, CitizenLab has provided platforms for more than 500 local governments — including the U.S. cities of Seattle; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Kansas City, Mo.; and Lancaster, Pa., — in 20 countries and worked on 15,000-plus projects ranging from urban planning and climate action to mobility and participatory budgeting. Its staff includes employees who speak nearly 30 languages.

“Unfortunately, it really took the pandemic to shift the thinking to a digital route,” Horton said. “That crisis was the big instigator for a lot of this coming to the fore. Governments had their traditional methods of engaging with their communities and had stuck with them over time because that’s how they did things and there wasn’t any kind of direct push or motivation to change.

“They didn’t feel the need to go digital, but then all of the sudden when COVID hit and they couldn’t reach anyone in person, government agencies — especially in the U.S. — began looking for digital engagement tools.

“They weren’t able to have town halls and other kinds of traditional meetings for a lot of projects. Then even after cities began to open, they saw the opportunity to incorporate digital engagement to be more inclusive and reach a much more diverse group of people than they had communicated with in the past.”

But CitizenLab’s clients haven’t gone entirely digital, she said. “Most of our government partners are still employing lots of different boots on the ground, doing in-the-field and in-person engagement as well.

“What CitizenLab prides itself in is that we are able to be your one central engagement hub for any engagement opportunities that are happening offline in the real world as well as online,” she said.

“For example, we have a survey feature where you can print out a PDF form to take out on the street to have someone fill out with pen and paper.

“And then when you import it into the platform, it auto transcribes the results and responses from that survey. They are then plugged in with the same ones that were received online so you can have that data all in one place. It’s super powerful.”

Natalie Ricklefts, the U.S. digital marketing manager for CitizenLab, said the city of Seattle hired the company to reach a wider audience to update its comprehensive plan and create a vision of what residents would like it to be in 10 to 15 years. “They’d done a survey that found they were reaching predominantly older, middle- and upper-class Caucasians.

“One of their big goals in using our tool in general — both for informational and community engagement reasons — was to make its comprehensive plan a lot more inclusive and equitable.

“We were able to do that through our platform by using at least seven different languages, including Tagalog [for people from the Philippines], Chinese and Spanish because Seattle has a very diverse population. Historically, non- English speakers were left out.”

She said traditional engagement methods like attending a town-hall meeting or doing something in person tend to be not only whiter and wealthier, but also skew older. “Younger, less affluent and marginalized segments of the population may not be as aware of those kinds of things and are often busier with their day-to-day lives. Those were parts of the population they were hoping to reach beyond their traditionally engaged group.

“They were able to pretty successfully solve that with our platform and reach more of Asian, African American, Hispanic and Native American populations, which are a big part of the state of Washington.” According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the non-white population in Seattle is nearly 40 percent.

This time around, they used social media extensively and garnered more than 10,000 comments.

Horton said her company’s platform offers two-way, transparent feedback between local governments and their residents, community-based organizations and other stakeholders. “We have a range of engagement methods that can happen online. Residents are able to engage in various topics, ranging from a park redevelopment to a long-range strategic plan or something related to the business community.

“For example, I just got off a call from Lahaina in Maui, which was devastated by fires in August of 2023, where they are asking business owners if they are still around and if they want to be part of a temporary commercial district.

“They can engage in specific topics and then we have various methods like surveys, ideations or voting on proposals to respond. You can design your project to get the feedback you need. That’s it in a nutshell. We have a really robust back office that allows you to summarize feedback that you are getting and create reports easily.”

Though Seattle didn’t use AI (artificial intelligence) methods to gather or analyze responses, Horton said that tool is now available from CitizenLab. “We just released our AI feature in beta in the summer of 2023, so it wasn’t quite ready for Seattle. But we now have an AI tool as part of our platform that can summarize and break out themes. It helps data analysis and reporting, especially with the more qualitative feedback.

“For example, if [a client] got 10,000 comments, they could get reports and summaries from those responses in a matter of minutes. That is a new tool we are rolling out. There is sentiment analysis that has a lot to do with the phrasing and the core terms that are used. There is an auto tagging tool that pulls out key words and themes from comments so you can see how they are lined up.”

Karalee Brown, assistant executive director for the California Institute for Local Government (ILG), said many cities, counties and special districts that her agency works with shifted to a hybrid form of outreach and communication during COVID.

And they’ve stayed with those techniques, she added. “It seemed that a lot of community members liked that flexibility being able to join meetings remotely because they could offer their feelings and thoughts when it was more convenient for them, rather than having to show up for a council or board meeting in person.

“There are a lot of virtual products and techniques out there that agencies are using, like survey and polling tools and technology solutions that help correlate a lot of the feedback that they are getting into a website that has a list serve or a newsletter function. There has been a big shift to exploring tools that help do this in a virtual and hybrid space as well.”

Melissa Kuehne, a senior program manager for ILG, said some agencies may soon be using AI. “There are tools using AI to analyze responses they get in response to plans and do things like take notes at meetings.”

Another European company that has made inroads in the United States is Maptionnaire, which was founded in Finland by Maarit Kahila and Anna Broberg, PhDs in land-use planning.

Tablet screen showing the Maptionnaire app

Courtesy of Maptionnaire

“We wanted to understand how we could gather good quality data from people regarding their perceptions of the living environment,” Kahila said. “We saw an opportunity to design a web-based tool that would allow them to point on a map to the places they have experienced in different ways.

“We found that this kind of data became relevant for the urban planners even though their first reaction was suspicious. I started to work with my dissertation project in which I studied the relevance of the tool and data for the urban-planning process. My question was whether this kind of approach can make planning more inclusive and socially sustainable.”

The company was founded in 2011 and took off in 2016, she said. It now has clients around the globe, including MIG, the city of Denver and the city of San Francisco to name a few.

“When we started, the main focus was on map-based questionnaires (hence the Maptionnaire name) that could be designed, implemented and published on the web to enable people to produce data from their living environment by using PPGIS (Public Participation Geographic Information Systems) technology.

“Nowadays, Maptionnaire is a much broader community engagement service but at its core are rich and advanced map-based technologies and functionalities.”

She said users make use of the Maptionnaire platform when designing and implementing various kinds of community engagement methods they find relevant for their projects. “Our users are very talented in exploiting the potential of Maptionnaire on their own, we only provide a short onboarding and support.

“What we have learned is that the service offers them a way to support the entire planning process from the beginning to end. They also value the data they haven’t had before and the ease of broad and inclusive outreach. Many planners also consider that the acceptance of the projects has increased significantly when using Maptionnaire.”

Prior to using the company’s high-tech tools, she said it was the “usual suspects” who attended public meetings and commented on plans. “Now we can reach people much more broadly. We’ve received feedback from users that with Maptionnaire they are hearing from women, young people and other groups, who haven’t previously been involved. We can tell this because in most questionnaires, planners have decided to ask demographic background questions as well.

“We also are pleasantly surprised that the elderly are fine using the technology, giving them the opportunity to respond from the comfort of their homes rather than traveling to public meetings.”

She said geo-located information from respondents is important because: “While planning projects vary widely in content, from zoning, to designing parks, smoother mobility, transport solutions and neighborhoods, all these projects have two common denominators. Planning is always place-based and involves communicating and working with people. This is why it has been great to see and learn how planners have started to use Maptionnaire to support their own work.”

Alexandra Foster, a communications program manager for the city and county of Denver, said the Community Planning and Development Department started using Maptionnaire in 2016 to be able to provide an online option for participation to those who were interested in sharing their voice in our planning processes, but weren’t always able to join meetings in person.

“As part of our planning processes, we often held meetings for which we printed out big maps and asked meeting attendees questions that they could answer directly on these maps. For example, ‘what are areas in your neighborhood that are facing challenges?’ or ‘what are areas in your neighborhood that you like and why?’

“Maptionnaire allowed us to ask these same questions online and use their map-based interface to recreate the map exercise that previously could only be done by those able to attend meetings in person. This meant that a lot more people could answer these questions and the volume of responses and comments we received was much higher.”

Like with CitizenLab, Kahila said Maptionnaire’s tools can be used for old-fashioned town-hall sessions and interviews. “Yes, and this is very important. In community engagement, face-to-face communication and participation remains valuable and quite fruitful.

“The best projects use hybrid methods and tools. That’s the way to reach people more broadly and overcome the various stages in the urban-planning projects that do require different kinds of methods.”

Chase Mullen, director of Technology and Visualization at Metta Urban Design in Denver, said he is using the high-tech tool of Virtual Reality (VR) in the planning process. It all started three decades ago when he was a 12-year-old fifth grader and he became enamored with the Myst video game.

“It was kinda like a point and click adventure with some puzzle solving in it,” he explained. “The thing that was novel about it was it was 3D generated and was one of the first games that created a compelling environment that was all virtually generated.

“At the time, it was bleeding edge, using 3D rendering and something called Strata Studio Pro, a powerful modeling software.

“I asked Santa for that software for Christmas, got it and taught myself how to use it. The thing that resonated with me was that you could create a virtual environment that could be so convincing that you would have an emotional response. You really felt like you were in that place. You could lose yourself in that environment. I absolutely dug it. It wasn’t interactive and it wasn’t real time, but they’d show you a different rendering they’d done from a different environment.

“It had good sound effects and a nice soundtrack to go with it. That’s when I knew I wanted to do something like what I’m doing now.”

He started out studying computer science at the University of Colorado-Boulder, but switched to the environmental design program for his undergraduate degree and melded his two areas of interest. His first job out of college was with Winston Associates, which was the design consultant for the ski town of Vail, Colo.

“Jeff Winston had done work for Vail for many, many years and they kept him busy,” he said. “Things were constantly changing. When I joined, he gave me all the rope I wanted to try things and explore and push the technology. He was tickled by the amount of enthusiasm I had, so I dove into learning about how to do real-time simulation and I would make a video game out of development reviews and long-range planning efforts.

“Then at public hearings, we would fly around the model interactively. We set ourselves up to be in a position at a public meeting where if someone said, ‘what does this look like from my porch’?, we’d fly to their porch and show them what a proposed whatever would look like from their specific vantage point.

“Now these things are called ‘digital twins,’ counterparts to the real world, that you can use to test and evaluate things.”

Mullen said he’s most proud of the VR project he did for the city of Orem, a community of 98,000 that’s 45 miles south of Salt Lake City, Utah. The effort won him the American Planning Association Technology Division’s 2019 Smart Cities Honor Award, which was presented at the APA’s National Planning Conference.

The VR tool helped Orem planners — who had found that public opinion toward increased density was somewhere between snoozing and outright hostility — better engage communities about rezoning and the effects it can have on a neighborhood.

“Orem was going to put in some infrastructure for Bus Rapid Transit on one of their major corridors and along with that, do some upzoning as part of an overlay district in a string of pearls fashion,” he said.

“With VR, community members virtually ‘experienced’ not only how a proposed project would look, but also how it would ‘feel’ to be in that space,” he said. “The VR experience brought the Orem community together, garnering unprecedented support for increased density.

“The response was crazy ridiculous. Every one-single person who put on the headsets was impressed, and a majority said, ‘I want this today.’ Some also said, ‘I think [buildings] could be even taller if it would make things pencil out.’

“What was really cool about the overlay district was the scenario I built that encapsulated those principles and requirements with additional height bonuses and reduced parking requirements in exchange for nice gathering spaces. So, I made a 3D model of that scenario that would be possible on a parcel in that overlay district. That was what people could walk through visually and the reception was outstanding.

“That became really invaluable to the stakeholders, council members and residents so they could understand the ramifications of what they were saying yes to.

“That’s been the big thrust of digital twins, and by extension, some of the work that I’ve continued to do in creating environments to inform decision-making. That’s been the crux of a what a lot of my career has been focused on.”

Mullen now teaches an online class for Planetizen — a training agency dedicated to making urban planning skills affordable and accessible — called Virtual Reality in Planning.

Mullen said Orem partnered with a video game arcade to use its machines at an open house at an indoor mall, complete with an old-fashioned chili cook off. “It was like a normal arcade with booths and headsets and games that were ready to go. They provided a number of headsets and the city hosted a traditional open house with food that was part of it, with easels and renderings.”

Mullen said he hasn’t stopped there, creating interactive panoramic tours of projects and placing poster-sized QR codes on sidewalks that people can click on with their phones to see what a proposed building or bus stop or park might look like.

“We’re also putting as much information as possible on the web,” he said. “And it needs to be phone accessible, because for a lot of people, phones are their first choice in touching the internet, not on a computer.”

During the pandemic, he created virtual meetings. “We started making virtual interior spaces of gymnasiums, public libraries, Elks Clubs and stuff like that. We would put virtual easels on stage just like at a real, physical public open house meeting for members of the public.

“Then they could click on all the materials on an easel inside that panorama so they could zoom in to the content of it. That started to move the needle a little bit. Because when you get people into that kind of space, you can do more interesting things.”

He said people responded well to those experiences, too. “It’s something you can step into. We refer to it as the Beetlejuice mode, where you shrink down to the scale of an action figure and move through that space conceptually.

“That was where I wanted to go with this. It was the missing piece in a lot of those virtual environments, being able to help people fully understand what it feels like to be in that space.”


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