Can technology replace sticky notes?
In recent years, increasingly accessible and affordable technology has enabled new forms of engaging stakeholders and communities in planning and designing urban projects. Interactive maps, social media, and mobile applications allow local governments, planners, and consultants to more easily interact with varied stakeholders, but also a wider public.
Is technology however always the best method through which to connect on some of the most complex issues facing our cities? What tools are the right ones to use and do they really reach the target audiences?
These and other questions were raised at a panel discussion hosted by the Cities team in New York. The evening brought together a unique set of speakers – all representing different ways of using technology to foster planning conversations. Eric Sanderson, a NYC celebrity for his Manahatta project presented his newest undertaking: Visionmaker.nyc allows users to develop and share climate-resilient and sustainable visions for New York City based on rapid model estimates of the water cycle, carbon cycle, biodiversity, and population. Jacqueline Lu, Director of Data Analytics at New York City Parks & Recreation talked about TreesCount! that enables residents to help count and map New York City’s street trees with a measuring wheel and an accompanying mobile app. Erin Barnes, founder at ioby, demonstrated how individuals can make big changes through ‘crowd-resourcing’; a bus rider in Atlanta, for example, revolutionized that city’s bus system by raising $534 to add printed timetables at bus stops – and created a non-profit organization in the process. Lastly, Frank Hebbert presented the open source mapping application shareabouts designed for crowdsourced info gathering, and demonstrated its application in the NYC participatory budgeting process.
The discussion highlighted the opportunities of these technologies. For example, online applications can help draw a much wider public into discussions about how we shape our cities as compared to more traditional outreach methods such as community workshops. Such tools can also be much cheaper. Frank Hebbert explained how his mapping application was used to decide where bike stations should be located for New York City’s bike share program. Through an online interactive map, the project team received 10,000 station suggestions and 55,000 supports for these suggestions – numbers that could not have been achieved through costly and time consuming meetings. In another example, the use of the TreesCount!, app provides not only more accurate and detailed data than any previous tree counting and mapping efforts in New York City, but also engages volunteers and builds a citizen science community as yet not engaged on a project of this scale in the City.
Technology can however also have drawbacks. Use of digital applications often appeals to particular demographic groups – tech savvy young professionals – and therefore building an engagement methodology into the plans for technology, and collaborating with organizations that help reach less tech-enabled groups cannot be forgotten. Eric Sanderson thus also weaves the use of his Visionmaker application into the high school curriculum for teens in disadvantaged neighborhoods, to educate and engage students. In sum, panelists agreed that online platforms should never entirely replace face-to-face interaction, but rather be thought of as an additional source of engaging a wide citizenry in the dialogue to shape our cities.